Cover Photo Courtesy: Caris Photography
When jockey Nik Juarez won on his first ever mount, last December at Laurel, some might’ve stopped and asked, “Wait, Juarez? That sounds familiar.”
The name might ring a bell because Juarez, 20, is the son of former rider Calixto Juarez. The young jockey’s racing roots run even deeper, as does Nik’s determination to succeed as a rider in a very competitive Maryland jockey colony.
In this edition of Jockey Journals, Nik Juarez discusses why he did not always think he’d be a jockey, what motivates him and why he says his time to shine is now.
I am a born and raised Maryland kid with horse racing running through my veins and roots for generations. My grandfather is Charlie Linton, who was an outrider here in Maryland for 30-some years and, from what I was told, “He was the best!” He was the guy you called when no one else could ride a horse – you could be sure that Charlie could! My father Calixto Juarez was also a jockey and has been my biggest support thus far. My mother was a pony girl when she was in college for nursing and that’s how my parents met. And the rest is, well…history. Funny how horse racing itself is what brought me to horse racing. It all just made one big circle.
Growing up on the farm, I learned responsibility and hard work at an early age. I was in 4-H and showed just about every animal we had; chickens, ducks, dogs, steers, pigs, everything except a horse! Unusual as it sounds, I never had interest in horses until later on in my life. I grew up in this business, surrounded by horses, and a horse family but I, on the other hand, wanted to ride dirt bikes. I guess just something to be different. But when it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood and inevitable not to do what you were bred for. It’s probably not politically correct to say “bred” for; however with horse racing on both sides of my family I have the right pedigree for what I’m doing now.
I was an all-around sports kid. Despite being smaller than everybody, I always played every sport. But I really found my niche when I got to High School and began wrestling – finally something for my size! I was fortunate enough to be coached by now Hall of Fame Coach John Lowe. I really enjoyed the sport. It’s just you, the mat, and your opponent. Almost like horse racing – just you, the horse, and your opponents. Oh yeah, and the finish line!
Coach taught us to wrestle smart more than anything, and I’ve incorporated that into my riding as well. He taught us not only physical toughness but, more importantly, mental toughness to go that extra two minutes when you don’t even have one minute left in the tank, to find in yourself what no one else can! Another plus was learning at an early age how to cut and maintain my weight. Everything I learned from wrestling has given me an edge and has transpired perfectly over to riding races.
I have been at the racetrack since I was two weeks old and with my father being a jockey I literally grew up in the jock’s room. My dad’s valet Bruce Gill used to pay me a dollar to clean my dads boots when he came back from a race. That was until I found out I was being under paid… good try, Bruce! I remember since I was very young, the sound of the trumpets at post time would make my hair stand on end! Or my dad grabbing me and keeping me close when they would bring in an apprentice who had just won their first race. Boy, was that a sight to see!
My first vivid memory is when my dad went down at Deleware Park in 1996. I was 3-years-old at the time and I can remember my mother and I in the grandstand watching the horse just go straight down, instantaneously sending my dad head first into the dirt. It had all happened so fast. My mother grabbed me and she ran to the track to see if he was okay. I remember my dad wasn’t moving for quite a while and, for a kid whose dad is his whole world, it was the scariest thing.
Thankfully, the worst did not happen and he was able to walk away with a broken collar bone, shoulder, torn rotator cuff, and many ligaments torn in his right arm. I remember my dad had to become left handed for many things including throwing a football. He would play catch with me and throw right handed but quickly his shoulder would be in pain so he became ambedextrous just so he could continue to work and still play with me. Right then I knew how tough and big hearted of a man my dad was.
With that being said, my poppy is my biggest support, role model, mentor and now fan. This is a very tough, cut-throat business and despite all of my dad’s injuries and struggles he still continues to work hard and does what he can to provide the best life for us. Before every race we talk on the phone and discuss how we think the race will unfold and my strategy going in to the race. The trainer always give you instructions in the paddock but when those gates open anything can happen and you must be prepared and have a Plan B. After the race, we talk and he critiques me on what I need to work on and, on some occasions, just gives me a simple “Job well done, sonny!” We watch my replays and other races when we both have time to do so. He reminds me that there is always something new to learn and I have to remain coachable and humble. He will alwasy be my favorite jock!
In addition to my father, I really look up to Sheldon Russell, a real Edgar Prado type in the sphere of Maryland racing. He is just a different kind of person that is very rare to come across; a smart, strong rider on the track and a classy, well-mannered, disciplined man even out of the stirrups. He repeats the famous quote by Winston Churchill- “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” He never fails to tell me “Nice ride, mate” when I ride a smart race and also things I need to work on. Truly a great friend!
Carlos “Tiki” Marquez, Horacio Karamanos, Victor Santiago, Xavier Perez and many other riders in the jock’s room that I didn’t name have all made an impact on me and keep me moving in the right direction. I also watch other riders from around the country including Joel Rosario, Julien Leparoux, Edgar Prado, and many other of the greats!
The list could go on and on but, most importantly, God is my biggest influence because without Him I wouldn’t be here. I thank him everyday for blessing me with life and continuing to bless me by allowing me to do what I love. I don’t want to sound like a bible-thumper but I want to bring something else to horse racing besides just myself.
The biggest challenge riding here is just getting started. Although I am from Maryland, there is a pecking order and I have to respect that. I witnessed second hand my dad’s hardships in the business so I wasn’t entirely taken by surprise when I had to experience some of my own. But those challenges were and still are very difficult. However, with Trevor McCarthy losing his bug this month, the question arises “Who’s ready to step up?” Well, hopefully the pecking order falls onto me and I am ready to take that challenge on, head on!
My goals for my career list the same as any other rider: Breeders Cup, Triple Crown, Dubai World Cup and so on. And I will certainly work as hard as I possibly can to get to that point. However, something much more obtainable at this point would be leading rider at Pimlico this meet or, at least, the leading apprentice. And being from Maryland, I would love to ride Preakness Day, something I’ve been dreaming of since I was a little boy.
My agent Al Dellape and I plan on going to Monmouth Park for the summer, while also traveling to the surrounding racetracks on the dark days. Wherever I can make the overnight, that’s where I’ll be! That’s the one thing about having the bug, time is priceless and the time is ticking.
The Jockey Journal solely reflects the words and thoughts of Nik Juarez. We thank him for taking the time to write this piece for DanonymousRacing.com and wish him continued success.
You can follow Juarez on Twitter @NikkyJ1035.